Inferno: XXXIII: Penultimate Betrayal
Ink on paper, 2022 22 x 15”
On the floor of Hell, Dante strides further on the ice and encounters one of the most harrowing scenes in L'Inferno—two wretched s
ouls embedded in ice, with one—the Italian traitor, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca—gnawing at the skull of his captor in life, Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, the archbishop of Pisa. The pièce de résistance of this scene is that Ugolino, his lips bloodied from the gory feast, uses his victim's hair to wipe his mouth.
* * *
Fans of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (a 19th century French sculptor) are probably familiar with one of his best-known works, a gruesome yet romantic marble group known as Ugolino and His Sons (1865-67). In the sculpture, Count Ugolino is captured in a moment of extraordinary psychic agony, chewing his bony, contorted knuckles in torment as his sons and grandsons clamor to provide the only gifts they can offer him as they face starvation—their own flesh. The invisible setting for this moment is a tower in Pisa, where Ugolino and his descendants have been locked away to starve by Ruggieri, who trapped and deposed Ugolino from his seat of power as a Ghibelline. While it is near certain that Ugolino was indeed locked up to starve in the tower with his sons and grandsons, research reveals that it would have been difficult for him to devour his kinfolk, since he was both quite elderly and (likely) toothless at the time.
As I've made my way through this series of drawings from Dante's Commedia, there have been many moments when I've considered the inclusion of portraits of my own era's most detestable figures—political and social actors who might stand in for Dante's own memorable cast of characters for whom he harbored so much resentment. Of course, the felonious, treasonous swine who continues to lay waste to America (and the rest of the world!) has crossed my mind from the start but I have repeatedly been stopped by the satisfaction his inclusion may bring him. There has been an astonishing phenomenon that has characterized his time in power: no matter what attention has been afforded him—even the most damning public indictments—he is increasingly fortified, like the hydra from Herculean legend. So, until now, any reference to him has been off limits merely because I wanted no part in promoting his public visibility, hoping instead to have him wither away rather than remain in the realm of consciousness.
A while back I was asked to contribute a poster to a political public art project in Richmond, Virginia. Former professors and colleagues enlisted artists and designers to make large scale posters on the theme of "hope," which the curators would then cycle through in prominent public spaces. I made the image below for this purpose, inspired by my daily walks in the woods where inert, lifeless stones sink inexorably into the earth. They're gray, mute, featureless. I suppose the message of my poster is easy enough to decipher: I want the fiend who has so deeply contaminated American life to go the way of stones in the woods, with barely a notice as life is rebuilt around him.
* * *
Of course, I have failed, having now placed a simpleton who has hardly been worth our attention, but who somehow gained so much of it anyway, in the darkest and most frigid depths of Hell. In its climactic, literary profundity, the privilege of ranking so low is an honor he doesn't deserve, despite the ethical vacancy and arrogance he has displayed since I first took notice of him in 1987.
Still, he is not unlike Count Ugolino, in his ruthless vindictiveness for enemies and in his delight in betrayal—of family, of "friends", of country. Likewise, his vacuous children pathetically surround him as consequences threaten to ruin him (none of which will stick, if history is any indication—the wealthy, or pretend-wealthy, always go free, one way or another). His ferocious appetite for attention, tempered only slightly by social isolation, post-Tweetdom, endures. He is starving a wee bit, but I think we all know it won't last, because he has ushered in the most stupid and hateful period of a lifetime with plenty of faithful acolytes who will support him until the day he dies.
I don't know whether I'll return to this drawing (there are many in this series that I want to revise or scrap completely). It needs more darkness and atmospheric complexity. I did not succumb to the temptation of full likeness, I focused instead on something else, perversely referring to the inimitable coif which remains elaborately combed over—a familiar emblem of vanity and deceit for all who have suffered through his despicable reign—even as he gnaws the bloody nape of his captor's neck while embedded in ice at the bottom of L'Inferno. Next up, the true headliner, Lucifer himself.